“You can’t just hit the diversity button”
Project Include founding advisor Laura I. Gómez (@laura) isn’t afraid to speak up — or reach out — to make things happen.
Laura I. Gómez remembers the first time she was called to activism. She was 15 and living in Redwood City, at the heart of Silicon Valley, and her entire existence came under threat. It was 1994 and then-Governor Pete Wilson introduced a proposition to ban undocumented immigrants from using state services.
Gómez herself was undocumented. Although her Mexican parents were legal, tax-paying residents of the United States, their children had been excluded from the paperwork. The rule would mean Gómez could not use schools or hospitals — and she knew she had to make a stand. Despite being threatened with suspension by her teachers, Gómez organized a district-wide walk-out.
“I was on the phone the night before, calling everybody — all the student body presidents, the teachers, calling bilingual education teachers in these schools,” she says. “The police were very cooperative. I remember calling them. I was like, ‘It’s gonna happen, so you guys need to follow us.’ And they’re like, ‘Sure.’”
It was an early lesson in how making things happen wasn’t just about belief. It was getting people to listen. Two years later, she used the same chutzpah to score her first step in the tech industry.
“There were four scholarships, one out of each high school in our district, and the finalists at my school were me and the valedictorian,” she said. “I think I was sixth or seventh in my class.”
She wasn’t the highest-ranking student in her class, and didn’t think she had it in her to edge out her rival when it came to meeting the internship committee — until one of her teachers gave her the inspiration.
“She told me, ‘You have something she doesn’t. You can capture a room.’”
Speaking up wasn’t risky in the same way that the school protest was risky (although not being able to afford college is a different kind of risk) but Gomez took the challenge. She stood in front of a panel of a dozen white men — all executives from an engineering firm — and won them over. She got the scholarship.
Gómez spent her college education learning multiple languages (she’s still fluent in Portuguese as well as Spanish and English), researching international studies and studying Latin American economics and politics. That knowledge, and her previous experience, lead to a position expanding localization efforts at Twitter in 2009.
“To this day,” she says “Twitter’s international users base is 77 percent. We made it happen.”
But that success also came with costs. Seeing San Francisco’s Latinx communities being displaced by the tech industry got Gómez thinking again.
“I remember when I left Twitter, I told a janitor there, a woman, that I was leaving. She started crying, and said, ‘You’re the only one that talks to me.’ We had 2,000 employees by that time. She’s like, “You’re the only one that, I mean, people say hi and thank you, but no one sits down and asks about me.”
“She started crying, and I thought, ‘Oh, she just broke my heart.’”
With around 8 percent of people in tech coming from the Latinx community — less than half the average of the United States, and dramatically lower than California’s 39 percent — Laura started finding ways to speak out, to act, to connect with people who were normally out of reach. She sought out a way to create more opportunities for Latinx people so they’ll be able to actually create wealth to give back.
That’s where her own startup, Atipica, came about. It builds recruiting software that aims to help companies hire more diversely. Just before raising $2 million in venture capital funding, she was introduced to Project Include as it started getting off the ground.
“I am so proud of what it’s become. I feel like Project Include should not just be applauded from what we’re doing in our advocacy, and the strong, beautiful, intelligent, and brilliant women in there, but also what we built as far as a team. Project Include not only preaches, but we actually implement our own ideas; I think that allows us to really push forward.”
She’s not kidding. Since joining Project Include, Gómez hasn’t just tried to spread the knowledge the group has put together — she’s actually applied many of the recommendations to her own company.
This action has generated plenty of fresh insights, and new perspectives from on the ground. For example, through interviewing women in tech, she found out that women are hesitant to join certain kinds of companies… including her own.
“I remembered CEOs talking about how hard it is to retain their female engineers,” she says. “And at that point, my only female engineer had just left. As we dug deeper, I realized that a lot of women tend to be hesitant to go to early, early stage companies — they look for later stage. It can be because they might not have the mentorship, the support, but they’re also risk averse: it’s ‘is this early stage company going to support me?’ I had a couple recruiters tell me, ‘Yes, I’m a recruiter for an early stage company, and it’s really hard.’ So I’ve been thinking about that, adding more support there.”
Her solution is what Project Include suggests — to treat diversity as complicated problem that comes from many different directions. It isn’t just about female engineers; it’s about whether there are many blocks to hiring. Has the company thought about parental leave? How many days can one work remotely? Putting Project Include’s advice into action helps her business, just as being a founder helps her advise Project Include.
Just like she found out back at school, it’s not enough to believe something — after all, we can all believe something. Instead, you have to act, and you have to get people to listen. That might mean you take extra time to explain your predicament clearly to people who can make things happen, or it might mean practicing what you preach and making sure you have enough credibility in the eyes of your peers.
“I can relate to these recommendations that way, as ways that founders can implement Project Include’s advice,” she says. “Because you can’t just hit the diversity button.”